Wed 21 Mar 2007
For much of the wine press — and I don’t mean the machine that presses the grapes but people who write about wine — trade tastings are a way of life. Only a few writers at the top of the profession, if I may use that dignified term, don’t need to attend these mass events at which there can be the opportunity to sample, in the meager sips poured for you, anywhere from, as in my recent experiences in New York, 35 to 165 wines. Think about the last figure. One-hundred and sixty-five wines is a lot of wine, hence the necessity of sipping judiciously and spitting out the, as it were, used-up wine in your mouth.
When you really want to taste a lot of wines, as was the case a few years ago when VinExpo was in New York and the grand event featured a tasting of Bordeaux red wines from the legendary 2000 vintage, careful planning and a level head are required. I mean, I have seen wine writers of otherwise delicate sensibility and slight constitution throw a block that would make a line-backer quail in order to get to a table where a desirable wine was being poured.
And spitting! The typical procedure is to place buckets at either end of the table, so tasters will have ready access to them. The reality is that so many people crowd particular tables — again, where the best wines are being offered — that it’s impossible to reach the spit bucket on that table, so tasters lean over and spit in the bucket of the next table. Sometimes organizers try to solve the spitting problem by placing the buckets on small tables in the middle of the aisles between the tasting tables, but that procedure usually ends in disaster, because tasters simply step back a bit, twist around and spit from a distance. In a few minutes those tables look like Aztec altars of sacrifice. Not to mention the people who happened to be strolling between a spitter and the distant bucket. And think of what happens when the staff at the tasting, usually a ballroom or event venue, can’t keep up with emptying the spit buckets.
And you thought writing about wine was a noble endeavor!
Another problem at trade tastings lies with the people who don’t come to taste wines but to schmooze, to see and be seen, to drop names all over the place, to bestow air-kisses (mainly women) and punches on the arm (mainly men, though sometimes men give air-kisses, too, depending on the nationality). These are the people who take up a position right in the center in front of a table and stand there forever, jawing away with a winemaker or property owner or public relations manager, gabbing about the last time they were in Rome or London or Santiago, while the rest of us are trying to elbow in, slinking and swerving, holding our glasses up beseechingly, hoping for half-an-ounce of whatever happens to be there.
Frankly, the number of people who take notes at trade tastings is alarmingly small. I mean, what’s the point, though I suppose that the real business of buying and selling doesn’t occur at the tastings but later, in a corridor, on the sidewalk, at dinner. The whole enterprise is pretty hazardous anyway. Imagine juggling a glass, now stained red, your pad and pencil, trying to extract a business card from a pocket that also holds a camera, taking a sip of water occasionally or a bite of bread and making sure that if you shake hands with someone, your fingers aren’t wet with spilled wine.
And then of course, that moment happens, when you’re being hounded and jostled, when the uproar is deafening and your pen is running out of ink and you feel a headache beginning to swell from the back of your neck and your feet and ankles are sore, and you absolutely need to find a restroom, that moment happens when you take in a sip of some wine you’ve never heard of and it hits you, the real thing, a wine with true character and tone and quality, with depth and dimension and deliciousness, and you say, probably louder than you should, though who’s going to hear, “Holy shit,” and you look at the people who poured the wine for you, and they’re grinning from ear to ear.
The image at the top is from the Gambero Rosso tasting of top Italian wines on Monday, March 19, at the Puck Building in New York.
The second image is from the Cercle Rive Droite tasting of 2006 barrel samples from the Right Bank of Bordeaux at Chanterelle in New York on Thursday, March 15.